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2015 NFC North Grades: Detroit Lions

The 2015 grade series continues with the Detroit Lions. We’ll take a look at the jekly and hyde Detroit offense of 2015.

Quarterback: A-

Stafford had 97 QB rating (9th) with 67.5% completion percentage (5th best in league and Lions record) with 7.2 YPA. Stafford tossed 32 TDs (7th) and 13 interceptions on the year with 4,262 yards (8th) in league. Stafford had a 97.2 rating (5th) in his glorious 2011 season which was almost matched this season. Stafford finished the second half of the season strong with 19 TDs and 2 interceptions after a 13 TD and 11 interception first half. Stafford had an 84.1 rating in the first half of the season and 110.1 QB rating in the second half of the season.

The difference was night and day under Cooter compared to the failed Lombardi as offensive coordinator. Also, the Lions played 6 top 10 defenses in the first 8 weeks. The Lions played no top ten defenses in the final 8 weeks (GB twice and Rams were good defenses though) The Lions are slated for 3 top ten defenses in 2016 which could change based on personnel moves and coaching/player improvement for the NFC East, AFC South (sans Houston),Rams, Packers, Bears and Saints.

Any other year, Stafford would be regarded as a very good QB. However, due to the slow start in the first half of the season (1-7), everyone is judging Stafford based on wins this year (7-9). Stafford had a great year stat wise and is a slam dunk top 10 QB in the league overall. Stafford had poor run game for most of the year and below average protection (35%) (which was very poor in first half of the season). Stafford has all the tools and produces with proper average support in run game and protection. If only Cooter had been in charge all season.

RBs C-

This was a tale of two halves. The rookie Ameer Abdullah had 3.6 YPC and fumble issues in the first half of the season (2 lost). Abdullah notched 4.7 YPC in the second half of the season with better ball security. Abdullah was a great kick returner too and good receiver. Abdullah finished with 143 carries at 4.2 YPC, 2 rushing and 1 receiving TD. It was a good rookie year for the second round pick despite some early struggles.

Joique Bell battled injuries after three offseason surgeries and an ankle injury in the first half of the season. Bell responded better in the second half of the season (4.2 YPC in the last 7 games) but ended up with a poor 3.5 YPC on only 90 carries. Bell had more receiving yards in the second half of the season and 4 TDs on the year rushing. It was an injury riddled disappointing season for Bell. He may be a cap cut if Quinn wants a new power back.

Theo Riddick is a great receiving RB. Riddick had 697 yards and 3 TDs receiving and was great getting YAC and making defenders miss. Riddick and Abdullah were average in pass blocking and Bell was below average.

Rookie Zach Zenner showed some flashes but was hurt in Week 4 and missed the final 12 games. Rookie fullback Michael Burton played well in run blocking and had a few clutch catches at full back. Burton needs to work on his short yardage rushing skills.

The Lions RBs were a mixed bag but showed very good things with Abdullah and Riddick (receiving). They need to add a power back since Bell keeps having injuries that slow him down.

WRs B+

Calvin Johnson played all 16 games for the first time since 2012. Calvin was slowed by an ankle injury most of the year but still and 1,214 yards and 9 TDs. Calvin could have connected on a few more deep passes to up his YPC and had a costly fumble at Seattle at the one yard line. Megatron seems to retiring before 2016 due to his ankle problems. This will be a minor blow to the Lions offense but Tate and Ebron and others can pick up the slack.

Golden Tate had a nice season but didn’t have as good of YPC as 2014. Tate had 813 yards and 6 TDs but only 9 YPC. Tate made defenders miss often but lacked getting big yardage often or going deep in 2015. It was a nice season but still a disappointment after a 1,300 yard 2014 season. Tate can do more next season and might have too if Calvin retires. The Lions had three receivers with over 80 receptions which knocked Tate’s numbers too and Ebron was targeted more in 2015 than 2014.

Lance Moore was a decent slot option despite missing 2 games. Moore had 337 yards and 4 TDs but lost playing time to TJ Jones at the end of the season. Jones had 132 yards and 1 TD on 18 targets. Jones had a huge clutch catch that SHOULD have sealed the game against Green Bay and also caught a 29 yard TD against the 49ers. Jones showed promise late. Corey Fuller was a deep threat that never was for Detroit. He was buried on the depth chart and only had one big play on the season (48 yard catch).

TE C

Ebron improved a good amount in his second year. Ebron had 537 yards, 11.4 YPC and 5 TDs in only 14 games. Ebron struggled in run and pass blocking though and still has some drop issues. Ebron can be a big time weapon and Cooter used him better than Lombardi.

Brandon Pettigrew had an injury plagued season and tore his ACL late in the season. Pettigrew was a poor run blocker and average pass blocker despite his strengths. Pettigrew caught one big TD at Lambeau after the Abdullah return to open the second half. Pettigrew may be a cap cut under new GM Bob Quinn.

Tim Wright was picked up in a trade in August (for backup K Kyle Brzinda) and didn’t do much receiving other than two touchdowns. Wright was a terrible blocker and won’t be given a restricted free agent offer.

Ebron showed more flashes and consistency. He could become a big time weapon if called upon with more targets. However with Calvin and Tate and Riddick in the fold, Ebron will always be third fiddle at least. Ebron will have to make the most of his targets and hopefully be a 700-800 yard and 5-6 TD guy in 2016. If Calvin retires, Ebron must do much more in year 3 unless the Lions add a stud number WR 1.

Offensive Line D

Riley Reiff had a down year at left tackle in pass protection (6 sacks, 7 hits and 38 hurries) but had strong run blocking (+8.9). Larry Warford struggled early with an ankle injury and missed some time but improved as the season went on and his health got better. Warford was only average (-1.5 pass block and -2.5 run blocking) though and not the elite and good guard of 2013 and 2014. Warford’s bad ankle, Waddle’s bad knee, Swanson’s bad play and zone blocking scheme of Lombardi was costly for Detroit

Travis Swanson was terrible (-25.7) in his first year at center and missed 2 games. Swanson had shoulder surgery since the offseason began. Swanson struggled in pass and run blocking. Raiola was terrible in 2014 too so Swanson just continued the trend. The Lions need a new center or to re-sign Ramirez to play center.

Rookie 1st round pick Laken Tomlinson (-9.4) started the season poorly but improved over time. Tomlinson was average in pass blocking (-.4) but struggled in run blocking (-12.7). Backup Manny Ramirez played a lot in 2015 due to injuries to Warford and Swanson. Ramirez had a great season (+10.1) and should have played over Swanson based on performances. This was a great job by Mayhew to add Ramirez in his draft day trade down.

Right Tackle was a mess until Michael Ola stabilized the position to average in Week 9 and beyond. Waddle was the worst tackle in the league recovering from ACL surgery and missed games early. Waddle was cut mid-season and picked up by the Patriots. Waddle could get a ring which is sickening. Cornelius Lucas is a bad back up in both run and pass blocking (-11.0).

Michael Ola was a waiver wire pickup after the Chargers cut him early in the season. Ola did average in pass protection but struggled some in run blocking a few games. The Lions got better when Ola played though to stabilize the pass protection. Average would have cut it at right tackle. The first half of the season, the Lions had the worst right tackle in the league.

The offensive line allowed 44 sacks, 40 hits and 169 hurries. Stafford was under pressure 35% of the time which was worse than a poor 2014 and much worse than 2011-2013 protection for Stafford. However, this poor percentage ended up being 14th best in the league. The Lions run game had 3.8 YPC on the season due to strong second halves from Abdullah and Bell and better run game planning under Cooter and Modkins.

The scheme matters for the Lions but they really need to add a stud tackle, upgrade at center and re-sign Ramirez. Laken will grow in year 2 and Warford should be better with better health. In the right power scheme, Warford and Tomlinson could be very good guards. Reiff can run block but must improve his pass protection. Switching Reiff to right tackle may need to happen in 2016 as Reiff plays under the 5th year option.

Overall: B- with an elite finish

The Lions actually improved on offense compared to 2014 (11-5 season at 20.1 PPG). Detroit had 3.8 YPC rushing (26th) instead of 3.6 YPC (2014). Stafford was pressured more in 2015 (35%) but had a better season in 2015 with a 97 QB rating and great completion percentage. Calvin Johnson didn’t miss 3 games despite his ankle injury like in 2014. Riddick and Ebron had good and solid seasons. Moore and Jones upgraded the slot position over Jeremy Ross.

The Lions scored 22.4 PPG which was 18th in the league despite being 31st at the mid-way point. Detroit had 20 turnovers in the first 8 games but only 4 turnovers in the final 8 games. This is a big reason Detroit went 1-7 to start the season and finished 6-2. In the two second half losses, Detroit had a pick 6 and short field for a TD after a strip sack and lost by 7 and 5 points respectively.

OC Joe Lombardi was fired before Week 8. He just couldn’t get the offense turned around in year 2 at the helm. Once Jim Bob Cooter took over and had time to make changes (bye week), the Lions offense took off.

Stafford and Cooter are the big reasons for this turn-around from mid-season. Despite a poor run game, below average protection with high sacks, poor starting field position often and only 18 turnovers forced by the defense, Detroit was average on offense with an elite finish.

We will see if that elite finish will remain in 2016 with Caldwell and Cooter returning. The Calvin Johnson possible retirement throws a big wrench into those plans though. Detroit has the making of a great offense if they can avoid turnovers and improve their left tackle and center situation. I was closer to that top 5 finish than you think. The final 8 games give Lions fans hope in this offense. And if you think it’s because the Lions played easier defenses in the second half of the season, the 2016 schedule is full of easier defenses for Stafford to feast upon. The easier schedule and improvements at tackle/center and Cooter can propel Detroit to a top 5 offense in 2016.